Wednesday 5 March 2014

The evidential basis of the Book of Mormon, Mormonism and Mainstream Christianity


In a nutshell, I regard the matter of the evidential nature of the Book of Mormon (BoM) as a microcosm of the nature of Mormonism, which is itself a microcosm of Christianity.

That is to say there is evidence on both sides - evidence that the Book of Mormon is true - in the sense of being what it says it is; and other evidence that it is not true.

So that there are grounds for belief and also grounds to reject belief - and ultimately there is a choice to be made.


As Terryl Givens has said, the whole way that the production, the existence, of the Book of Mormon explains itself, and the way the BoM was explained-by Joseph Smith - with such concrete exactness and wealth of specific detail (the size, weight, location of the gold plates, the instruments of translation, the convoluted history of the visitations and manuscript etc.) presents a stark dichotomy: either such an elaborate and concrete story is basically true (with some inevitable human errors and distortions), or it is an elaborate and deliberate fraud (a fiction grossly elaborated from a mere handful of unremarkable facts).


And - because the BoM is the root and basis of the LDS church, the same argument applies to Mormonism - it is either essentially what it says it is, or else an elaborate and deliberate fraud.


The evidence is not all on one side, there is a significant balance of evidence; not equal balance - whatever that would mean - but the mass of unbelievers cannot accurately or honestly say there is nothing (or nothing significant) to be said in favour of the reality of the BoM and Mormonism itself; nor can Mormons accurately or honestly state that the evidence for the book and the faith is overwhelming and could only be rejected irrationally or maliciously.

Even those who conclude that the BoM is a fraud cannot legitimately claim it is an obvious fraud; even those who claim the BoM is the most important book in the world cannot legitimately claim that its production and nature are transparently and compellingly consistent with that status.


Furthermore, I feel that - at this point in history and in The West - the situation for Christianity is closely analogous to Mormonism.

CS Lewis put this crisply (although I would qualify his statement a little) when he said that Jesus Christ can only be regarded as either what he said he was; or else a deliberate fraud or insane.

My qualification is that the idea of Christ being insane is not much more plausible than that Joseph Smith was insane: considered as men (because those who deny the divinity of Christ regard him as a man) both functioned at far too high a level to be truly insane.

Those who regard Jesus as insane are required to believe that Christianity was fabricated by the Apostles - who would have had to be men of genius (and John and Paul certainly were); those who regard Joseph Smith as insane would be required to believe something similar - that Joseph Smith was surrounded by geniuses who did the real work of writing the BoM, devising a radically new theology, devising and organizing a new kind of church and so on - attributing the heavy lifting to the likes of Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young and perhaps Parley Pratt and with Joseph Smith as a charismatic, inspired but unwitting and crazed 'front' for these covert operations.


So, in both instances it comes down to elaborate and deliberate fraud versus truth.

And neither mainstream Christians nor Mormons should be offended by hypothetical fraudulent explanations of their churches - since fraud is the only intellectually rigorous explanation for not believing.


Now, of course, there is no reason why a Christian who has faith in the self-claimed divinity of Christ and is certain that Jesus was not a fraud; there is no reason why such a person is in any way compelled by consistency (or the similarity of the cases) to believe that 'therefore' the self-claim of Joseph Smith that he was a prophet was genuine.

It is logically possible that Jesus was genuine and Joseph Smith was a fraud. (Which is, of course, the mainstream Christian view.) And the opposite (i.e. JS genuine and JC a fraud) is not possible - because the fraudulence of Christ would invalidate all of Joseph Smith's visionary and prophetic claims.


BUT the evidential position for Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith is similar to the modern mind, using evidence we have today and with that evidence regarded as we regard it today: which is to say there is reasonable and plausible evidence on both sides of the question, and that the ultimate decision of truth or fraud must be a choice and a matter of faith, intuition, inspiration, personal conviction.

The evidence does not decide the question for us - we must necessarily choose and we must know that we are doing the choosing; and yet we will (like it or like it not) believe and live by our choice; because upon our choice hinges the basic frame and understanding of our future life - our basic motivation and sense of purpose.

(Or, alternatively, our state of essential nihilism - characterized by underlying alienation, incomprehension and demotivation.) 


I think Mormons are considerably more aware of this reality of modern existence as both consciously chosen and yet believed with certainty than are Mainstream Christians - and that this is one of the strengths of Mormonism.



ajb said...

If you're dealing with a potentially large period of time in which texts can be modified, events misremembered, verbal traditions can be modified, or where texts can have different purposes from a literal historical one, why is one left with a choice between fraud or (literal) truth?

Similarly, just because the evidence doesn't decide the question, isn't there still a question of which interpretation is most likely, reasonable, and so on?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - If you re-read carefully, I think you will find I have already covered these objections by my phraseology.

Certainly I didn't mention or imply anything about 'literal' truth.

George Goerlich said...

Today's method of truth-discovery is often contradictory! I think, for example, that the legend of King Arthur contains more truth than carbon-dating pottery fragments out-of-context - yet officially the broken pottery is "truth" while King Arthur is "myth" in the sense of being fake/false - but of course only the legend can communicate any sort of full or complete truth or story, while simply knowing what type of grain was stored in a pot on a given date communicates nothing by itself.

ajb said...


If you think Christianity (or Mormonism) is true only in the way that KA is true, then *say so*. At a stroke, you cut off most criticism of it.

Yet, many (most) Christians and Mormons believe that their core stories aren't just Mythically true, they are also (in a strong sense) literally (historically, geologically, astronomically, and so on) true. That is, they don't just contain elements of literal truth, but are mostly or entirely literally true (in addition to contain various spiritual or Mythic truths).

The problem (and fundamentalist concern, I think) is that once you start to head down that road, where do you stop? Say that the story of Adam and Eve isn't literally true (i.e., so that it doesn't contradict evolutionary theory, and so on) but rather is a spiritual allegory - fine. What about Noah and the flood? Well, probably based in a dramatic flooding at some point in history, but mostly a spiritual lesson or precursor. What about the ascension of Christ? Well, some exaggeration - he didn't really rise upwards like he was shot out of a cannon - it's a way of visualizing a spiritual transition. What about the resurrection - did it literally happen? And so on.

This maneuver is responsive to various contemporary criticisms, but corrodes significant aspects of the belief system - and so a concern is that if you start down that road, you'll end up with something on par with King Arthur stories - mere Myth. Yes, an historical basis, but largely obscured by the fog and currents of time, leaving us rather with (flexible, open to interpretation) Mythical truths.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I think one of the difficulties is that the two most common interpretations of True applied to the Bible are both inadequate: the 'mythically true' is inadequate for the reasons you state (and as someone who regarded the Bible as 'mythically true' for a couple of decades before becoming a Christian, I know the difference from personal experience!). But literalism is wrong too - in the sense thta the Bible is not meant to be read one sentence at a time, with each being literally true.

My answer, which you already know from previous writings, is that Christianity is true in the way that (real) science is true. This, of course, assumes that somebody knows how science is true - but the point is that science is quite cheerfully regarded as true while nonetheless the actual process of doing science regards much of it as wrong, imprecise, misunderstood, subject to (sometimes radical) re-interpretation and re-definition etc.

That is how I regard Christianity - and I suppose it is the reason why I am 100 percent comfortable with Mormonism being truly and wholly Christian 'despite' that it involves a radical re-interpretation of traditional doctrines etc.

wrt your earlier comment, I should have said that I do not think that in actual practice "which interpretation is most likely, reasonable, and so on?" is of any significant use in making these kinds of decisions. In particular it is not how science works - there is no 'weight of evidence' to science - and indeed quite the opposite; since theoretical breakthroughs are made by ignoring the mass of accepted evidence on the basis that - despite being accepted - it is wrong!

(I got this from Francis Crick's autobiography What Mad Pursuit.)

josh said...

Since your brought it up. What about the Book of Abraham? Doesn't it seem that Joseph Smith has been caught red-handed since the discovery of the Papyri?

Is the solution that JS was both a prophet wrt the BOM and a fraud wrt the BOA? I really don't mean to be rude, but I am intensely curious about this.

Bookslinger said...

As I've studied early Mormon history, I've come to realize that if Joseph Smith had been a fraud, most of his inner circle in the formative years, from New York, Pennsylvania, and Kirtland, had to have been in on it, including those who went on to betray him, or leave the church. Yet, none of those early witnesses who left the church ever said that the creation of the Book of Mormon was fraudulent. At worst they accused JS of being a "fallen prophet".

Martin Harris, early Book of Mormon scribe, as JS dictated the now lost 116 pages, would have had to have been in on the fraud. As also JS's wife Emma. And the scribe for the majority of the translation, Oliver Cowdery. He would have known if JS was dictating from a pre-written manuscript. If JS was a fraud, and if Oliver had not been part of the fraud, then JS would have had to have memorized the entire BoM prior to dictating it to Oliver.

Harris, Cowdery, and David Whitmer would have had to have been lying about the glorious presentation of the gold plates, the Liahona/compass, the interpreters, and the sword of Laban, presented to them by the resurrected person, Moroni. All three eventually left the church, but none recanted their testimony of the experience. Harris and Cowdery eventually came back. All three repeated and re-affirmed the experience throughout their lives, that they literally saw a glorious angel, heard a voice from heaven, and saw the gold plates in addition to the artifacts.

I don't believe Joseph could have tricked or hypnotized this group. They either saw what they said they saw, or they were part of a fraud.

The later group of eight witnesses of the gold plates never recanted either, though most of them left the church too. This group saw the plates under mundane circumstances, no angel, no voice of God, etc. They physically handled the leaves of the gold plates, examined the engravings, and hefted the entirety. I've tried to think of how Joseph Smith could have fooled this group if he had been a fraud. He would at least had to have gold, or a gold-like substance fashioned into plates/leaves with engravings.

Sidney Rigdon participated in many of the early revelatory experiences. He would have had to have been in on it. He left and came back, but never denied the revelatory experiences.

Thomas B. Marsh, first president of the 12 apostles, left and came back, but never denied JS's prophetic calling.

It's also interesting that none of JS's successors as President of the church were direct converts of his. Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff (and maybe Lorenzo Snow too) did not join the church after hearing Joseph Smith speak. They all joined the church before ever meeting JS.

In other words, JS was not the greatest proselytizer in terms of numbers. The great influx of early US converts joined before ever hearing him.

And then JS never went to England where an even greater number of converts joined. And to tie in a previous point, those missionaries who went to England and converted people by the thousands (Woodruff, Pratt, Young and others) were not direct converts of JS themselves. According to their testimony, Pratt and Young were converted by reading the Book of Mormon.

If it's all false, JS and whoever else was in on the scam were not just geniuses, they were evil geniuses who could keep their co-conspirators from betraying how they created the fraud, even when the co-conspirators left the conspiracy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@josh -

These specific debates are legitimate topics. But although one side may be strengthened in some way, often the same happens in the opposite direction. they never seem to settle matters - and I don't think they ever will.

Although evidence is relevant, the evidence does not compel belief; and probably evidence cannot compel belief - more important are the pre-existing beliefs and attitudes brought to the evidence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Books - Yes, it would have to have been a BIG conspiracy. But plenty of people are prepared to believe exactly that (although the great majority do not really appreciate the scale and scope of what they are suggesting).

George Goerlich said...

@ajb - You are good to criticize as my message was confused.

I meant first and foremost that much of what is communicated as "true" from mere archeological analysis is actually false, in the sense that it used by Historians in a way that is actively misleading and distorting. For example, History considers itself a hard science to know what so-and-so's slaves ate around some specific time period as if it actually conveys some meaning or truth, and ignorantly dismisses many first and second-hand documents as full of much error, bias, and false information. This lets them pick-and-choose from sources and isolated evidence to reconstructive whatever false narrative they need to make history make sense to a modern individual based on what they believe from a long liberal politically-correct education. Unique and non-politically-correct narratives don't get any publicity. Or taking the ancient writings as fact makes you appear foolish and ignorant.

The second thought is dependent on this, but leads me to think many legends contain literal Historical truth (actual human interaction, real supernatural meanings of these events - which is automatically dismissed today, how people honestly viewed their lives and what happened to them - which is considered bias and less important than the pottery fragment) than any foolish and ultimately ignorant (because they have to be, by the nature of it) attempt to reconstructive a half-baked narrative thousands of years later. Personally I go further than this to accept that many miraculous things could have happened in a *literal historical* sense.

For example, it's a very rare modern Christian who literally thinks God helped Constantine the Great conquer. And of course the Historians get to make-up the "truth" through guess-work that it was just a dishonest and clever political ploy to gain more power and subjugate a superstitious population, because only that explanation makes sense to the modern bias.

Bookslinger said...


It's not the slam-dunk that the church's critics would have people to believe. The critics carefully fail to mention pertinent details that severely weaken their claims. The main one being that the rediscovered papyrii do not include all the documents that Joseph had in his possession. Another being that the physical description of the BoA papyrii from JS's day does not match any of the papyrii in the rediscovered group.

In addition to the link BC gave above, the following link goes to a guy who analyzes various arguments. Lindsay's work is pretty much secondary research, but he does a good job of putting the various arguments/counter-arguments in one place.

Lindsay's pro-LDS arguments/presentations are much like BC's pro-Christian arguments. He does not suppose that the evidence/analysis that he puts forth compels belief, but rather that it creates room for belief, by logically countering those who say it can't be true.

Don said...

Question for the Mormons here. How do Mormons feel about faith healing? Is it something to be sought? Is it something that regularly occurs at services? I have only been to a couple LDS services and no laying of hands or anything like that occurred.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Don - Faith healing. My understanding is that it happens a lot, almost part of 'everyday life' - but not in services; instead by Priesthood holders (including the Father of a family, or a visiting Bishop or Patriarch perhaps) performing a formal laying on of hands and praying.

Mike A. said...

@Don: I'm an active Mormon. Mormons strongly believe in faith healing. We believe that any man who holds the Melchizedek priesthood (which any worthy adult male member of the church may receive) can lay his hands on a person's had and pronounce a blessing of healing. Blessings are sought often. I keep a vial of consecrated oil with me at all times in case I am asked to give a blessing. These blessings always take place in a private setting. They never take place in a worship service. The only laying on of hands that occurs in a sacrament meeting would be the confirmation of a new member who was recently baptized in order to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. If my child was sick and asked for a blessing, it would be my responsibility (and privilege) to bless her. I would likely call my neighbor or home teacher to come to my house to assist me in administering the blessing. Having two priesthood holders is not required, but it is preferred. There are two parts to a blessing of healing: a blessing to anoint the person with consecrated oil, and then another blessing to seal the anointing. It is this sealing of the anointing where the actual blessing of healing is pronounced. If I could not get a person to assist me in the blessing, I could do both myself. When I'm sick and need a blessing, since I can't give myself a blessing, my first call is to my home teachers, who are 2 men from my congregation assigned to my family to watch over our family, visit us on a monthly basis with a gospel message, and render any service I or my family might need. Bishops give many blessings in their ministerial duties to the congregation, but to help alleviate the burden of the bishop, we are taught that our first call if we need any help should be to our home teachers. Hope this helps.